“It’s about being able to breeze through the classes where I already have the knowledge base,” Smith said. “And I can sit down for five minutes or three hours and just pick up where I left off.”
A relatively new phenomenon—most programs are less than five years old—competency-based education has gained traction at a number of institutions. Sally Johnstone, vice president of academic achievement at Western Governors University, estimates that over the past several years, at least 200 institutions have created something resembling competency-based education: Among them are Capella University, Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Wisconsin.
The Obama administration and the Department of Education have helped spur this push. Last year, the president promised to promote legislation that would enable more people, particularly adult learners, to gain access to a high-quality, flexible college education. In July, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act, which eases financial aid restrictions on nontraditional course structures. It also makes provisions for the secretary of education to select up to 30 institutions to “(1)carry out, on a voluntary basis, competency-based education demonstration projects; and (2) receive waivers of certain statutory and regulatory requirements.”
While traditional online programs can be an asset to adult learners, they tend to rely on the same conventions as on-campus classes: semester-based lectures, exams, and specified due dates for assignments. But in competency-based programs, students can demonstrate mastery through real-world projects, using a wide range of tools to guide them through the process: They’re assigned a learning coach, who monitors their progress, and given an array of open-source resources such as videos, articles, and interactive textbooks. They can also join online communities where fellow students provide encouragement and support. To ensure fairness, they’re graded through double-blind project evaluations.
Through it all, they’re allowed to complete the courses as slowly or quickly as their schedules permit, within some guidelines. Most competency-based programs have a set fee for a certain period of time—usually two six-month periods. Students can enroll on the first day of any month and finish as many courses as they want within that time frame. For example, at College for America, the competency-based adult learning branch of Southern New Hampshire University, students pay $1,250 per six-month period and master as many courses or “projects” as they can.
College for America also works directly with employers and nonprofits, offering programs that help their employees gain job-specific skill sets. The program has partnered with 55 employers, including McDonald’s, Penn Medicine, and Dunkin’ Donuts, and has 560 current students, said Linnae Selinga, College for America’s communications manager. Though fairly new, the two-year-old program already has 20 graduates.